What Materials Have the Highest and the Lowest Recycling Rate in the US

Based on the data provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), during 2017 about 25% of total municipal solid waste in the US was recycled, 10% was composted, 12.7% was combusted with energy recovery, while a staggering 52.1% was landfilled. These statistics show that the US is ranked quite low when recycling and composting are concerned, at least compared to other countries of the Western world, like Germany, Denmark, UK or Netherlands. Even though many American cities have shown serious initiative to reduce pollution and take a more radical approach to waste management, imposing strict bans on many harmful and unnecessary materials, the problem still isn’t resolved on state, federal or corporate levels. To shed a bit of light on this problem, as well as to see what is the state of recycling in the US, let us take a look at the most and least recycled materials.

The least recycled materials

According to the EPA, plastic was the third biggest contributor to the total amount of municipal solid waste in 2017, right after food and paper/paperboard waste. Even though plastic plays an important role in overall pollution and waste production, only 8% of total plastic generated in 2017 was recycled. Even though some positive changes were made since the problem still isn’t significantly closer to the solution than it was three years ago. During 2019, it was revealed that much of the plastics gathered for recycling actually ended up in landfills. Why? Market issues. Namely, China increased its quality requirements for plastic recycling in 2017 and stopped buying significant amounts of plastic waste from the US. Many US recycling companies failed to find new buyers, which resulted in large amounts of mixed plastic waste remaining in the country. Only 56% of total plastic waste the US once exported is now still being accepted by foreign markets. This is a serious problem, considering that mixed plastic is deemed unrecyclable. It often comes to landfilling or incineration at the end, and both of those methods are unsustainable in the long run.

The most recycled materials

Even though it is 100% recyclable, glass is the second least recycled material in the US. This is quite odd considering that glass has very favorable qualities in terms of recycling and the whole process is quite an energy- and cost-efficient compared to making new glass from raw materials. There are quite a few things that may be the probable cause of this problem, but the ones that play the biggest roles are government policies and consumer education and habits. People often don’t separate their trash properly or leave it contaminated with food, liquids and similar, which often makes it unviable in terms of recycling. This behavior combined with single-stream curbside collection significantly decreases efficiency and increases efforts to recycle municipal waste. Glassmakers often find that it is economically unfeasible to process and prepare great amounts of glass waste into a furnace-ready form. These setbacks are the main reason why the recycling rate of glass in 2017 was only 27%.

The most recycled materials

Measured by percent of generation, lead-acid batteries are by far the most recycled materials in the US, according to data provided by the EPA. From 2010 until 2017, lead-acid batteries had a consistent recycling rate of 99.1%. This huge recycling efficiency is possible because lead-acid batteries have an almost closed-loop cycle of production. Every battery contains between 60% and 80% recycled lead and plastic, which makes the production process less polluting while also conserving natural resources.

Corrugated boxes are the second most recycled material in the US, with a recycling rate of 88.4%. Thanks to the active commitment of the industry and numerous educational programs, corrugated cardboard recycling managed to achieve great success in terms of material acquisition and efficiency.

The most recycled materials

Steel is also a highly recycled material. Measured by percent of generation, steel cans had a solid recycling rate of 70.9% in 2017. However, looking at ferrous metals in general, they have relatively low recycling rates even though they have favorable recycling qualities and are the largest category of metals found in municipal waste. In 2017, the rate of ferrous metal recycling from durable goods (small and big appliances, furniture, tires, etc.) was estimated to be only 27.8%. Also, in spite of all efforts, about 10.4 million tons of steel ended up in landfills, which means that steel made up 7.5% of all landfilled waste in 2017.

Aluminum beer and soda cans hold the fourth place on this list, with a recycling rate of 49.2%. However, this situation seems to be changing, considering the current problem with single-use plastic bottles and the fact that aluminum is the most sustainable beverage packaging. This metal is light and strong, easily transported, and can be recycled almost indefinitely in a true closed-loop process, which makes its production very efficient in terms of material utilization and energy consumption. Considering that plastic bottle trend is not sustainable in many aspects, the increasing number of beverage manufacturers are starting to see aluminum cans as a good alternative to single-use plastic. There are a couple of companies that have already caught on this wave and started producing canned water.

The most recycled materials

More and more people are becoming aware of current unsustainable practices and how polluted the environment is becoming. California, New York, and many other states are becoming increasingly active in terms of sustainability and searching for environmentally friendly solutions. This list of most and least recycled materials ought to change very soon, at least if we intend to live and grow food in an environment that is clean and healthy. 

One of the biggest setbacks of the current recycling process in the US is the lack of proper waste management, in terms of adequate waste disposal and organization of curbside services. To increase rates and make recycling more efficient, it is of utmost importance that the trash is separated and disposed of properly at the start of the process. This makes pre-processing less costly and the whole recycling process quicker, easier and more cost-efficient. Although this might seem like a very small change initially, don’t forget that a great number of small positive changes always result in something great. Germany’s ecological policies are the living proof that this way of thinking can do wonders.